Children’s interests and activities are as diverse as the children themselves.
Just as the right activity can build a child’s self-esteem and provide hours of enjoyment, the wrong one can do just the opposite.
So how do you find the right sport, club or music program for your child? This was the dilemma Mark and Susan Benzel were in when their children were younger.
“My kids weren’t gregarious about asking to participate in an activity,” says Susan of her now 16-, 11- and 10-year-olds. “We exposed them to a variety of things I thought would be developmentally good for them, hoping they would find something they enjoyed.”
Elementary school guidance counselor Donna Jeandell thinks this is a good idea, particularly for the younger set.
“It’s a lot like career exploration,” she says. “Expose children to different activities and let them observe things like concerts and sporting events. Then give them a sampling of things to try based on their interests.”
While doing so, consider your child’s temperament. Although it is important for children to have a balance of active and quiet play, some children are more inclined to physical activities; others would prefer to exercise their minds. This is the reason Frank and Betty Calvetti signed up their son for soccer when he was 5-years-old.
“Angelo has always had such a high energy level that we thought moving up and down the soccer field would be a good fit,” says Betty of her son, now 11. “We had considered baseball but, at the time, thought the game moved too slowly for him.”
Another consideration is your child’s personality. Is he more suited to group or individual activities?
“I think it’s a good idea for children to participate in a little of both,” says Carol Scott, 4-H youth leader. “In groups, kids learn to be cooperative players and are responsible for one another. In an individual setting, they can move at their own pace and feel a sense of personal accomplishment at what they have achieved.”
Benzel found this to be true with her 10-year-old son Brock.
“He always loved music and rhythm but had never had piano lessons,” she recalls. “One day, his friend came over and started playing our piano. Brock, who was 8 at the time, said, ‘I can do even better.’ I started him in lessons and within months, he had surpassed his friend’s skills. I never have to ask him to practice. Lessons are the highlight of his week.”
But Benzel admits lessons, practices and commutes whittle away time, which is why she always considers time commitments before enrolling her children in activities.
“My life is one big jigsaw puzzle with work and family responsibilities,” she says. “I have to carefully place on the calendar where everyone is going and have an ‘a’ and ‘b’ plan in case my husband can’t help out.”
Equally important to time is finding an organization that matches your goals and objectives with regard to student-teacher ratios, instructors’ experience, teaching philosophies and student expectations.
“If you aren’t familiar with local programs, ask for recommendations from teachers or administrators at your child’s school,” says Jeandell. “Or talk with family and friends whose children are currently enrolled in activities.”
Calvetti found this approach helpful. “When Angelo was in the first grade, a friend told me about a chess club her son was in, so we decided to sign Angelo up for it,” she says. “It was a great program and a good experience for him. It taught him to lose graciously and persevere through a game.”
Experts agree perseverance is an important lesson children need to learn. For the Calvettis, it was worth repeating on a grander scale.
“When he was 7, Angelo took an interest in the piano so we signed him up for lessons,” Calvetti remembers. “Two months into it, I realized he didn’t like playing, and we still had four months left on the contract. We wanted to see if we could move him past the learning curve and also felt the need to teach him the value of commitment, so we made him continue until the contract expired. He persevered to the end, but then he was ready to quit.”
“Before enrolling your child in an activity, explain the commitment to him so he knows what is expected,” says Scott. “Then if the activity doesn’t work out, talk with your child about what he didn’t like so the mistake isn’t repeated in the future.”
Most importantly, view it as a learning experience, not a failure. Maybe athletics isn’t your child’s thing, but music is. Or maybe it’s art or science or cooking or sewing. And don’t be surprised if it takes several tries—a few seasons or a couple years.
“My oldest daughter Meghan didn’t find something she truly adored until she was 16, and it’s volunteering,” Benzel concludes. “Even if my kids don’t ever find their niches, I’ll keep exposing them to different things so they grow up with a storehouse of experiences from which to draw.”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.